Putting John Sarno’s Ideas to Work – And Then Some…

Back Story by Sherri Obermakr
Back Story by Sherri Obermakr

Note from Cathryn: I came upon Sherri’s book after she followed me on Twitter, and it really made an impression. In Crooked, I write about talking with John Sarno, MD and describe his treatment protocol and why physicians wanted nothing to do with him. Sherri Obermark has made his philosophy her own, and with great clarity explains how and why it works.By guest blogger Sherri Obermark, author of a new book called Back Story, available here


This book is a description of my personal journey—from decades of musculoskeletal pain and discomfort to complete freedom from chronic pain. That may seem like a sweeping, even hyperbolic claim, but this experience has changed my entire understanding of health and fitness and has utterly transformed my outlook on life. It is this joy, exuberance, and relief that I hope to bring to everyone suffering from chronic musculoskeletal pain. If someone reads this book, learns from my experience, and achieves a measure of relief from his or her own chronic pain, then I will consider this modest project a success. Each person—each case—is different and that what has worked for me may not work for everyone in the same manner, but it is my hope that my methods will bring relief to many.

The proposition that physical and mental health are intertwined and that physical ailments can be exacerbated or even caused by emotional stress is now widely accepted as a general principal in both the mainstream and alternative medical communities. This connection between physical and emotional health is a concept with deep roots in the history of medicine. Both Eastern and Western traditions in the ancient and early modern world—from Ayurveda traditions and Chinese medicine to classical Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, and European intellectuals as diverse as Descartes and Kant—have speculated on the ways in which the health of mind and body are mutually dependent on one another.

Most of us already know that our minds and bodies are connected physiologically, but how and to what degree? In the hustle-bustle of our busy lives, it can be difficult for many of us to see how this connection may affect us from day to day.

For most of my adult life I was perfectly healthy, and capable of doing everything I wanted. Shortly after my 30th birthday, however, things changed suddenly and drastically as my body became afflicted with chronic musculoskeletal pain. At times, it was so severe that I found I was unable to sit or stand. It was frightening and baffling. What was happening to me? Initially the pain seemed mostly focused in my lower back, but later I would have bouts of chronic pain in my lower joints, including my hips, knees, and ankles. During these prolonged episodes of chronic pain, I wondered if I would be physically up for any type of excursion I wanted to plan.

If I were to describe my pain, I would say it was like a multiheaded hydra, with various types of agonizing discomforts. Once the pain began, it was almost always accompanied by a dull ache in my lower back, or sometimes it would be in a different part of my body. There was an array of pains: a burning sensation, a stabbing pain, a spiky pain, a lightning bolt of pain, a tearing pain, a pulling pain, a twisting pain, an uncomfortable heat, and the feeling of smoldering hot coals sitting just under the skin of my lower back.

My own search for relief from chronic back pain involved dozens of healthcare professionals, hundreds of lost hours of work and family life, and thousands of dollars in treatments and medications over decades, without even the smallest hint of how I could resolve my pain. I would often ask myself as the years went by, How is it possible that all this time and money and these resources, tests, and treatments could lead to little or no tangible result?

Healing began for me during the winter of 2013–2014 in an out-of-the-blue sort of way. The season was a very rough one for southeastern Ohio, as it was for much of the country. During that time I felt as though I were in a frozen rut with constant back and knee pain and various and sundry other pains throughout my body from which I could not escape. Whatever method I tried, I could not get warm. Hot baths, layers and layers of clothing, endless cups of hot tea—nothing worked. I didn’t want to go out to the track to run or even take a walk in the woods with my husband, which is something I has always enjoyed.

The beginning of my cure came to me without any great fanfare: a story about back pain and tension on the radio one afternoon got my attention in an urgent sort of way, and I wanted to know more. The story described how tension could be the cause of chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain. That little news story got me thinking about my own tension and various pains and set me off to researching the connection between emotion, tension, and back-neck-shoulder pain. I knew tension was my problem, but I didn’t know I could do anything about it. I discovered the work of Dr. John Sarno and his truly revolutionary thinking about the source of chronic pain. I quickly read three of Dr. Sarno’s books. His concept of tension myositis syndrome was understandable to me, and it seemed completely reasonable and solid in my mind. His explanation of how pain continued in a chronic state was the only interpretation of the issue I had ever heard that resonated with me.

My personal experience eventually led me to understand that there was no medical treatment, or external physical intervention, that could have cured my back or knee pain. Some modalities did make me feel better for a period of time, but eventually they all failed to bring me lasting relief. The therapeutics I tried, regardless of the type, were doing only one thing for me, and that was bringing blood flow and oxygen to my long-suffering, contracted muscles. As soon as the therapy stopped, the muscles contracted once again and were again starved for oxygen, and needless to say the pain returned.

Looking over the many episodes of crippling pain I’ve experienced over the years, I now understand that those events clearly took place at times of high stress in my life. If I looked at the stressful events and periods in my life, I could almost chart it directly to physical pain events. We always have some kind of stress in our lives, but there are times when those emotions become more than we can handle, and we are not aware when we’ve reached our breaking point. As I reflect back, it is clear to me that my emotional states—not a sprain I experienced twenty years ago, regardless of my previous assertions—were most likely the cause of many of the physical issues I endured. I was in a difficult emotional place with an incompatible spouse, I had a very high-pressure job, and I had concerns about aging or ill parents and family members.

I came to understand that the pain I was feeling was physical in nature but was driven by an internal source, which would continue to make me suffer until I dealt with the issues. It became clear to me that I needed to manage my own physical environment, tension, and then I needed to get my emotional energy under control. At once I knew what I needed to do to develop a cure that would work for me.

After I understood that my own mind was creating this tension, I knew that I needed a method to change the tension condition in my back and knees, so I created a relaxation technique that I call Total Muscular Release (TMR), which included both physical and emotional relaxation exercises. I practiced Total Muscular Release as many times a day as I could. Around the third day of consistently applying Total Muscular Release, I started to feel some relief. I honestly could not remember the last time that I felt no back pain. It wasn’t all the time, but often after a TMR session, I would realize that I have no back pain. At that point, though, I perceived my back pain in a way I never had before; I now knew that I could just release the muscles, the contraction would disappear, and the pain would go away. It was a real moment of crystal-like clarity for me when I realized I had the power to actually control my muscles. I could manage it, and I could make my pain go away, essentially on command. Yes, I could do that!

Within a couple of weeks my low-back pain was completely healed, and a few weeks after that my knee pain was gone as well.

What did this cure require of me? I had to come to understand that my mind was causing the physical pain in my body on a subconscious level and, most importantly, that there was something I could do about it. I had to come up with a plan of action and follow through with it. I had to put time and energy into this healing method even though, at first, I wasn’t really sure if it would work for me. Once I was committed to these concepts and efforts, there was nothing else to do but move ahead.

What did I get for my efforts? In short order, everything changed for me in a wonderful and exciting way. I reached the end of years of crippling chronic pain; I discovered a true understanding of how the mind controls the body—really controls it; and I found a method for managing the situation in the future. Once I gained the knowledge of how to relax my body and deal with my emotions, I was completely free and able to control my present and future life. There was an absolute eureka moment when I realized that nearly everything I had been told about my chronic pain was wrong—just flat-out wrong.

More than a year later I remain pain-free, and I could not be more at peace in my life. End your tension – end your pain…